Flight

Morale took a nosedive this week.  Extra trash to clean up from the Fourth of July weekend.  Office politics.  Missing tools.  Broken stuff.  And rain for three days.  I’ve been in Eagle for exactly six weeks now, and so far there have been few signs that I will actually get to visit the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

That changed on Friday afternoon, when my co-worker Nick said, “Wanna fly to Coal Creek tonight?”

How could I say no?

We take off from the gravel airstrip at 6:15 pm, in Nick’s blue and white 1951 Piper Pacer.  “Piper Pacer picked a peck of pickled peppers,” he says, when I ask what kind of plane it is.  We have 68.7 miles to go between Eagle and Coal Creek Camp, located in the heart of the preserve.  It will take us about an hour to get there, soaring over the wild country that lies on the south side of the Yukon River.  I’ll finally get to see the preserve for the first time, and from above.

The plane’s wheels leave the ground, the landscape shifts, and euphoria takes over – it comes with the transition into a different element, and a complete change of perspective.  The same thing happens when a boat leaves the dock.  I look down at my little house in Airville, and then we circle and launch ourselves to the north.

Calico Bluff is the first landmark, gateway to the southern boundary of the preserve, looming dramatically on the left bank of the Yukon.  Layers of grey limestone, black shale, and yellow sulfur are compressed, folded together, and fractured.  The gold miners named it after calico fabric, but I think it looks more like a layer cake or fancy confection.  Marine fossils are embedded in the limestone, and I hope to take a closer look someday, making this a stop on a float down the river.

Calico Bluff, on the Yukon River.

Calico Bluff, on the Yukon River.

We fly through a light rain, and the Piper’s white wing struts perfectly frame a plume of forest fire smoke, juxtaposed with a rainbow.  The clouds shimmer and the rainbow becomes a complete circle, no beginning or end to the arc.  My face hurts from smiling.

Following the Yukon’s valley and floodplain, we pass over Fourth of July Creek and Nick points out a couple of structures from an old gold mining operation.  Otherwise, the only human marks visible on the land are a few trails cut through the woods.

A different story applies to Coal Creek.  We approach the airstrip and the evening light shines on the contours of mine tailings, casting shadows between each hummock where gravel spoils were dumped from a giant dredge.  A road leads from the Yukon, and goes five miles up the Coal Creek drainage to the camp.  The dredge was active from 1935 until the early 1960s, and during that time removed 12,000 pounds of gold.  This industrial-scale gold mining operation left over 400 acres of mine waste and disturbed ground along the creek.  Some of it is overgrown with vegetation now, but vast fields of desolate moonscape remain.

We rumble to a landing on the airstrip, which is made of bulldozed mine tailings.  Randy, an interpretive ranger for the preserve, meets us with a four-seater ATV and we bounce up the road to Coal Creek Camp.  We pass by a beaver dam, ford a shallow creek, and cruise past rusting equipment, machines, Quonset huts, shacks.  And then arrive at a quaint little village of 1930s-era bungalows.  I’m a bit shaky from an hour in the plane, struggle with the sudden entry into summer camp for grownups.

Coal Creek Camp cabin.

Coal Creek Camp cabin.

The dining hall is stifling hot, but everyone is hanging out there, playing cards, eating cake, and taking shelter from the mosquitoes.  Multiple conversations are happening at once, and the volume is pretty high.  A group of teachers from Fairbanks are in residence for a week, doing continuing education credits to keep up their certifications.  I meet Chris Allan, historian for both Yukon-Charley Rivers Preserve and Gates of the Arctic National Park.  He might be mildly shocked when I tell him, “I just finished reading your book!  I was absolutely riveted.  Which surprised me, because I didn’t think I was interested in mining machines at all.”

“I’ll tell you a secret,” he said.  “I didn’t think I was interested in them, either.”  His book is Gold, Steel & Ice:  A History of Mining Machines in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and was published in 2015 by the National Park Service.  You can get it for free at the visitor center in Eagle.  It tells all about steam traction engines, donkey engines, and boilers; gold dredges, prospecting drills, and caterpillar-style tractors.  When I first saw the book I thought there was no way I would read it, much less enjoy it.  But Chris is a talented storyteller, and deftly weaves together the tales of the people, the land, the quest for gold, and the machines.

What happened at Coal Creek is this:  Men used bulldozers to strip away trees and vegetation.  Then they blasted away soil with high-pressure water and thawed the permafrost with steam.  The dredge moved in, its task to separate gold from sand and gravel.  Its bucketline –  like a giant chainsaw bar and chain, but with scoops instead of saw teeth –  gnawed the earth, carrying the entire riverbed into the dredge, where it was noisily sorted by size and sluiced with water to separate the gold from the waste rock. The heavier gold sifted down, even the tiniest flakes, to be captured in a pool of mercury.  The mercury was then vaporized in a process called retorting, leaving behind almost pure gold.  The dredge chewed its way across the land, followed by the camp buildings, which were built on skids so they could be dragged along.

Nick is ready to start the return flight to Eagle, and I am ready to leave Coal Creek, after just an hour of visiting.  I wonder what happens to mercury when it’s vaporized, and how much (even after cleanup efforts) might still remain here.  Discombobulated, churned up, and spit out; this is the impression given off by the land at a gold mine.  And this is the way I feel while I am here.

We fold ourselves back into the snug cockpit of the Piper, and fly over the monster dredge just after take-off.  It’s bittersweet, the end of innocence, learning that pristine wilderness doesn’t really exist.  But mining is just as much a part of Alaska as salmon, grizzly bears, and humpback whales; extraction industries like oil production, timber harvest, and commercial fishing are all threads in the fabric of this place.

Still, there are no highways, pavement, skyscrapers, or sidewalks down there.  No farm fields, domestic animals, fences, or feedlots.  No wind turbines, cell towers, power lines, or pipelines. No lights, antennas, or radio towers.  No restaurants, theatres, or ballparks.  Visit this place with no knowledge of history, and you could be forgiven for thinking that human beings have never changed a thing here.

Forest and wetland glow a deep rich green in the evening light, the sinuous curves of the river flowing through.  It’s 9:30 pm, and long shadows trace every spruce tree and hill.  It’s gorgeous and wild and speaks to my soul in a way few places do.  I gaze down at the strange shapes of the land and am amazed by how much I don’t understand.  Permafrost and fire.  Ice lenses and wedges.  Tundra polygons, pingos, oxbows, and terraces.  There is still so much to learn.

For now, I have to concentrate hard to keep from smiling.  My face is really starting to ache.  We approach Eagle Bluff, and the now-familiar curve of the Yukon in my neighborhood.  From this altitude I can see the jagged grey Ogilvie Mountains on the distant horizon, over there in the Yukon Territory, Canada.  They look imposing and stark, in sharp contrast to the terrain we have been flying over.  Sometimes I think my appetite for exploring is limitless; but I realize now I have no desire to go there, to the Ogilvies.  Exploring the 2.5 million acres of Yukon-Charley seems like it might be enough.

Nick, the Piper Pacer, and me. At the Coal Creek airstrip.

Nick, the Piper Pacer, and me. At the Coal Creek airstrip.

This entry was posted in Alaska, Canada, Conservation, History, Travel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Flight

  1. Pete says:

    Thanks for taking me along on your trip to ‘Coal Creek’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nancy Crowe says:

    Hmmm…. Really liked this one. Just the right blend of description, history and adventure. But that sure looked like a small plane. Please keep sharing your perspective on Alaska so we can all view it through your eyes. Love, Aunt Nan

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jerry Mom says:

    Thanks for another chapter in The travel Adventuress of Cindy. You are getting a fortune of sights and history of the Yukon. Your Smile muscles are getting a workout. ENJOY Love Dad

    Liked by 1 person

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